Berlinale 2022 review: A Love Song (Max Walker-Silverman)

A Love Song is like turning the AM dial to discover that short mellow track humming unexpectedly in the ears, its melody warm and chorus clear.”

Soft, expressive golden hues bathe the rural Colorado trailer campsite of A Love Song in a brilliant haze. Here, widow Faye (Dale Dickey) sets up a temporary homestead against a gleaming lake, though, as she notes, the shoreline has receded from what she remembers in youth. Her favorite yellow rabbitbrush flowers still clump and gather about as hills rise in the distance, their slopes and valleys washed with aspen, while she waits for a visitor from the past. In his feature debut, Max Walker-Silverman stakes a generous claim to this idyllic geography, one that exists like a sun-kissed hangover drifting life back into focus, but it’s the emotional habitat of his lead actress that offers the most moving views.

Dale Dickey, the journeywoman actress, is as enduring as the constellations that her character watches whisper stories across the night sky. Her performances, usually in memorable support but here in lead, always carry a well-travelled but timeless nature, to the point and plainspoken. Dickey is expressive like few on screen – simply put, she has one of the great but humble presences in film. She can capture swaths of the American experience in a truthful glance. With A Love Song, she covers the terrain of brokenness in graceful rhythms that rise and fall as the days strum by. Writer-director Walker-Silverman and especially lensman Alfonso Herrera Salcedo capture the worn resilience that Dickey exemplifies, pink hues of sunset blushing her face and drawing, from those familiar cheekbones, hope after loss.

It’s at daybreak, too, where A Love Song finds promise. In a moment when Faye arises from bed, twisting awake and peering outside the camper window, Andrew Wyeth’s masterwork Christina’s World is recalled. Her anticipation surrounds the arrival of an old friend, driving a routine that encompasses instant coffee, crawfish, and the two field guides on her shelf – one for day and one for night. A tabletop radio is her only other steadfast accomplice, crackling hums in search of a frequency. When Lito (the stalwart Wes Studi) finally arrives, wilted asters in hand, the familiar strangers sing a duet literally and figuratively, the balance of their heartache held in the rests between their memories. Shared resilience in loss rather than shared history grounds the reconnection. “Reckon you can love something that ain’t there no more?” asks Faye, and as this duo parts the following day, the refrain is yes.

Independent film over the last few decades is an important reference for Walker-Silverman, since the filmmaker frequently gathers deliberate visual arrangements and palettes, interspersing them with restrained dialogue. A Love Song can sometimes play very festival ready, its indie formalism practical and well-intended. Faye’s folksy interactions with a few roaming characters like a humorous group of cowpokes, a mailman, and a black lesbian couple, for instance, are on-the-nose. While not restrictive devices, these moments lack the colloquial sincerity of the interaction with Lito at the core of A Love Song. One can’t help but wish that cut was extended.

Whatever time you have, that’s enough,” though. Earlier, when she and Lito are catching up, fumbling through verses when the words seem to slip slide on by, Faye notes that the radio can seem to play the perfect song even if you aren’t sure why. Maybe only after the passage of years does the significance resonate. Watching Dale Dickey embody gentle longing as the centerpiece of a film is certainly that way. So, instead of waiting for the right song over the airwaves, understanding what is found in the moment is exactly what is needed. A Love Song is like turning the AM dial to discover that short mellow track humming unexpectedly in the ears, its melody warm and chorus clear.